José Martí Introduction - Essay


José Martí 1853-1895

(Full name José Julián Martí y Pérez) Cuban journalist, essayist, orator, poet, and novelist.

Although many people may readily associate Cuban politics with Fidel Castro, many Cubans, if asked to name the most prominent figure of their political history, might think just as quickly of José Martí. Dedicated to defending his country's freedom from Spanish rule, Martí wrote extensively in many genres and on many topics from his teenage years until his death during Cuba's Second War for Independence in 1895. His lifelong dedication to Cuban liberation has made him an almost mythical figure in that country, and has earned him a reputation as a great defender of human rights throughout the Americas.

Biographical Information

José Julián Martí y Pérez was born on January 28, 1853, in Havana, during an important juncture in Cuban history. Situated just off the coast of Florida, Cuba had been under Spanish rule for many centuries; at a time when the once powerful but now-faded Spanish Empire was releasing many of its other colonies, it still retained Cuba, mainly for its lucrative sugar cane plantations. How Cubans felt about that relationship varied considerably by class: the wealthy, largely Spanish-born ruling class welcomed Spanish rule, since the European nation protected their power. An emerging, Cuban-born middle class—Cuba's principal landowners and professionals—however, was often more divided, as many merchants sensed that their wealth would escalate if they could begin trading with the United States and other nations. The sugar cane plantations they owned, however, depended on the labor of a large population of slaves originally brought from Africa. The Spanish military presence promised continuing prosperity of the plantations by suppressing slave revolts. This enslaved population was in many ways the starting point for revolutionary sentiment in Cuba, often drawing sympathy members of the middle class.

Martí entered this society at a crux in its many different populations. His parents were both from Spain, but were not members of the ruling class: his father, an enlisted soldier, had become a policeman in Havana and supported his family on relatively modest means. At an early age, Martí began a formal and informal education that inculcated a revolutionary frame of mind. At the age of nine, he saw how slaves were treated on plantations and felt a deep horror at the abuse and injustice. Moreover, the school that he began attending in 1865, the Colegio de San Pablo of the Municipal School for Boys, operated under the guidance of Rafael Maria de Mendive, a journalist and poet involved in revolutionary organizing. When the ten-year First War for Independence began in 1868 with the Grito de Yara, or Cry of the Youth, Martí celebrated the revolutionaries in epic verse; the poem, "Abdala," appeared in a paper published by his headmaster. By the time Cuban authorities discovered a seditious letter bearing his name and the name of a classmate, the evidence against him easily substantiated a charge of treason. After a period of imprisonment and hard labor in Havana, Martí began the exile that would pursue him throughout his life.

Deported to Spain in 1871, Martí studied at several universities, earning a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy and humanities in just a few years. He also continued his political activities, publishing his first major political treatise, El Presidio Político en Cuba, in 1871, and La República Española ante la Revolución Cubana in 1873. That same year he left Spain, traveling first to Paris and then making his way back to the Americas by 1875. He settled in Mexico, where he began writing for the journal Revista Universal, which would become a major venue for his essays. After several years in Mexico, Martí attempted to return to Havana under his second names, Julián Pérez. He soon found himself back in central America, this time taking a teaching post at a university in Guatemala. By the end of 1877 he moved again briefly to Mexico, where he married Carmen Zayas Bazán, and returned to Guatemala the following January. There he remained until political disagreements led him to resign his teaching post.

Changes in the political regime in Cuba gave Martí hope that he could return home. In September of 1878, he tried to live in Havana under his primary name, but a revolutionary faction, deeming that the changes in the Cuban government had not gone far enough, instigated "La Guerra Chiquita" (The Little War) in August of 1879. Martí was a natural target for the government's retaliation, and so he found himself deported to Spain again. There, however, he managed to escape from prison, making his way to New York City by way of Paris. Even from this distance, Martí remained integral to the Cuban revolutionary effort, serving on the committee that oversaw the progress of La Guerra Chiquita. When the uprising ended in defeat in 1880, Martí lost no time in beginning to plan a new military effort. Maintaining New York City as his base, he traveled throughout the United States and Latin America for the next fifteen years, fundraising and organizing. It was also during this time that he solidified his career as a writer, becoming a regular contributor to major Latin American and United States newspapers. He also continued his work as an editor, managing Patria, the main journal of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and founding a journal for Latin American youth called La Edad de Oro, or The Golden Age.

By the early 1890s Martí's political work began to yield results: the time seemed ripe for a new uprising in Cuba. Elected as a delegate to the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892, Martí stepped up the pace of his organizing and fundraising, traveling back and forth across the country to make certain the strength was there for a victory. The Second War for Independence began on February 24, 1895; Martí landed in Cuba on April 11 and was inducted into the army as a Major-General. A little more than a month later, on May 19, he died in battle.

Major Works

Although he published creative work in many different genres during his lifetime, Martí was best known as a writer for the treatises and essays he wrote that directly promoted his political beliefs. Martí's earliest piece of political writing marked his arrival in Spain when his exile from Cuba began: El Presidio Político en Cuba described his experiences as a political prisoner under the Spanish authorities in Cuba. Events in Cuba over the next several years motivated his next major work, La República Española ùnte la Revolución Cubana, which reflected the disappointment he and many Cubans felt when a new Spanish republic failed to relax its grip on Cuba. Several decades later, Martí served as the primary, if not sole, author of the political platforms of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Resoluciones adoptadas por la emigración cubana de Tampa (1891) was the most comprehensive of these, coupling Martí's revolutionary principles with a formal plan for the structure of the party. The second part of these appeared in a new form a year later as Bases y Estatutos Secratos del Partido Revolucionario Cubano (1892). Finally, just as the military strike against Spanish rule began, Martí penned a last distillation of his political thought in the Manifesto of Montecristi (1895).

Between the earliest and latest works of his writing career, Marti became a prolific journalist, the profession with which he supported himself while living in the United States. Of the hundreds of articles he wrote, many addressed similar themes and were easily gathered in anthologies under comprehensive titles. The two most reprinted and discussed of these series were entitled North American Scenes (1880-1895) and North American Personalities (1880-1895). Both brought the politics and culture of the United States to a large Latin American readership. While Scenes focused largely on social and political themes, Personalities provided portraits of important American men, including his highly acclaimed pieces on Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In all of these writings Martí offered a mixed review of the United States, applauding the function of democracy while decrying the effects of materialism. His criticisms, however, had to be understated, even in Latin American papers. Of his extensive writings on Latin America the most celebrated has been "Our America," written in the late 1880s and published in a Spanish-language newspaper in New York in 1891. Here Martí called for cross-class resistence to the imperialism embodied by Spanish rule and that threatened the United States. Consequently, the work also included his vision on unifying Cubans from many different backgrounds for a common cause.

Martí's first published poem, "Abdala," was also a political piece that paid homage to Cuban revolutionaries. He became known as a poet, however, primarily for three volumes. The first, entitled Ismaelillo, published in 1882, established Martí's reputation as a poet. Dedicating the writings to his son, from whom he was separated at the time, Martí's voice blends his own past hardships, and those of his nation, with a suggestion of the potential for the future, embodied in his son and revolution. When Versos sencillos appeared in 1891, readers encountered a new voice, one that lingered less on the pain of existence and reached instead for some harmony and balance in life. Versos libros, composed in 1882, did not appear in print until 1919. He also had some success with a dramatic work, Amor con Amor se Paga, staged in Mexico City when he first lived there. Only one piece of prose fiction has been identified as his: the novel Amistad funesta, which appeared under the pseudonym Adelaida Real in 1885.

Critical Reception

As soon as Martí began his travels as an exile from Cuba, he began using the free press as a medium for conveying his political and cultural message. By the 1880s, his essays on politics and culture reached—through the newspapers—broad audiences throughout the Americas. Wanting the ideas to be available to readers from many different backgrounds, he made these writings accessible statements of his analyses and his visions for political change. The audiences that his articles and pamphlets reached, even in Spain, usually found themselves swayed by his words.

Although many tributes followed his death, popular studies of Martí did not emerge until the 1930s. In the following decades, his reputation as the "father of Cuba" grew, until its character drastically changed with the onset of the revolution in 1959. Throughout the century, however, interpretations of Martí's work have produced an array of different conclusions, sometimes diametrically opposed, depending on the political perspective of the writer. The earliest and most cohesive incarnation of these interpretations was the idealization of Martí as a Christ-like martyr of Cuban liberation, possibly summed up in Félix Lizaso's Martí, Mystic of Duty and Jorge Mañach's Martí: Apostle of Freedom, which gave rise to the popular reference to Martí as "the Apostle." In these studies and other, somewhat less deifying works, the focus remained on Martí's life, commemorating the man through his deeds and often suggesting a model of virtue for others to emulate. Summing up these works, which he dubs "traditionalist" Martí studies, critic John Kirk remarks in his book that "the vast majority of studies . . . agreed in presenting an apolitical, uncontroversial, and neutral image of the Apóstol." In the reverential distance integral to such biographies, in-depth analysis of his political and social ideas found no space.

That changed in the late 1950s when Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro claimed Martí as the figure of the new liberation he envisioned. With Castro's claim, Martí's politics became contested terrain in the struggle between opposing viewpoints in Cuban politics. A precedent did exist for this struggle in a minority of earlier works: while a small faction portrayed him as a social and economic radical, the other, larger faction downplayed his more extreme beliefs in order to depict him as a moderate supporter of the status quo. Naturally, as Martí's politics became the focus in the late 1950s, these two positions came to characterize the debate. Castro's revolutionary party claimed Martí as the visionary of their social and economic plans and the classes that fled Cuba used him to argue that Cuba should be an independent but capitalist nation with strong ties to the United States. The debate advanced Martí's reputation in Cuba and beyond. In his homeland he became standard reading for the masses: when the government instituted the "Year of Education" in 1961, which greatly improved the literacy rate in Cuba, Martí's writings became standard texts for study.

More recent studies, in both Cuba and the United States, have achieved greater objectivity by concerning themselves more concretely with close studies of Martí's writings, both essays and creative works. American literary critics had discussed Martí as early as the mid-twentieth century—despite the lack of scholarship and translations in English—for his appreciative writings on North American men of letters, including Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Consequently, both literary critics and historians in the United States have contributed to the growth in Martí studies. Overall, this work has gone a long way toward dispelling either past oversimplifications of his thought or assetions that his ideas were fundamentally chaotic and contradictory, albeit brilliant and eloquent. With careful attention to detail, these studies have succeeded at discerning an overall coherence in Martí's complexity. By the late twentieth century, the several thousand studies of Martí available in both Spanish and English move towards a more comprehensive and three-dimensional appreciation of this writer and thinker.